The Etruscans, an ancient Italian civilization, existed in Etruria and in the Po valley in northern Italy. Their origins are subject to speculation with Herodotus claiming that they had come from Lydia (west Turkey) and Dionysius believing that they were indigenous to Italy itself and called themselves Rasenna. Some non-Greek inscriptions were found in the island of Lemnos and these appeared to be related to the Etruscan language dating back to 6th century BC and this seemed to support Herodotus. But contemporary research shows that Etruscans were descendants of people called “Villanovans” who lived between the 9th and 8th century BC and in the 7th century BC Etruscan cities began to appear in places where the Villanovans had lived. This supported the claim that they were indigenous after all. Even today there is no definitive account of their origins and this is one reason why Etruscology is a very popular subject of interest for researchers and scholars round the world.
During the 7th century BC, the Etruscans developed a series of autonomous city-states namely Arretium, Caisra etc. Their influence spread far and wide well into the north as well as the south. The Romans, when they started out, were under Etruscan control and even after they became independent, viewed the Etruscans with disapproval and a certain fear. This explained the Romans’ later unsure attitude towards monarchies.
Etruscans traders, with full control of the Tyrrhenian Sea, were as well-known as the Greeks or the Phoenicians to the people residing along the Mediterranean. The land routes leading to northern Europe were also discovered by the Etruscan merchants. These people acted as middlemen between the advanced Eastern Mediterranean folk and the lesser developed westerners. The Etruscans have always been known as passionate sea-farers. Their sea ports, called Emporia were important international trade centers. The Etruscan ports were known for the abundance of fish that could be caught there. Traders from far and wide traded a variety of goods like ceramics, wine, vases, bronze arms and treasures in these ports. Etruscan goods have been found all over the Western Mediterranean and this proved that their network was far-reaching right from the beginning. The Etruscan ships were vastly different from those of the Greek or the Romans’. The engineering was not exactly well done and very often the ships had to wait for days on end for a favorable breeze to get moving. They used stone anchors and this invention has become very important hence. The Etruscans also built a complex system of roads for a wholesome logistic network for trade.
The Etruscan technology was more advanced than its neighbours’. The stone arches, paved streets and sewers all are widely thought of to be the Romans’ inventions. But it is in fact the Etruscans to whom these should rightly be attributed to.
Civil Architecture and music
A typical housing of the ruling class consisted of a large central courtyard which led to many inner chambers. Another variety of a house had rooms adjacent to each other and opened onto an entrance hall. The buildings were generally not tall and had square bases clay walls. The inner walls had beautiful frescoes with geometric patterns and the outer side was decorated with terracotta.
The Etruscans played the flute in all its different forms and the double flute was considered the national instrument. All of their activities be it eating, working, religious ceremonies or even going to war, involved music in some form or the other. Dancing by both sexes accompanied the music and at times the dance forms took a ritualistic meaning.
Women, fashion and Literature
Etruscan women had ample independence contrary to that of the Greek women who spent their conservative lives sitting at home catering to the needs of their husbands. Etruscan women could go out, pursue their interests, sit together at festivals along with their husbands and wear unconventional clothing. The importance accorded to them can be gauged from the fact that people were recognized by both their father’s and mother’s name in the states. All this led to jealous feelings by the Greek women who spread scandalous tales about the Etruscans accusing them of being unscrupulous. In the latter half though, the Greek culture caught on and the Etruscan women lost part of their independence.
In their very early stages the Etruscan men walked around bare-chested but later they started wearing a short tunic as well as a colored embroidered mantle thrown over their shoulders. This mantle soon became the national garment of the Etruscans, the Tebennos. Women and the old people wore long tunics reaching almost up to their feet. Sandals were a ubiquitous form of footwear and the headgear consisted of different shapes of woolen caps depending on the social class the wearer belonged to.
Most of Etruscan literature is absent and this is a major cause for not properly understanding their culture. Fortunately though there is a large amount of documentation present on the Etruscan religious literature. These contain rules of behavior in daily life, the religious calendar, and also the rules of divination.
Art and Architecture
Etruscan artwork always had a practical purpose and was not done simply for aesthetic reasons. Drawing inspiration from Greek art and remaking those into more attractive, more popular and more expressive forms was their forte. Pictorial representations were a very popular form of art and could be divided into two phases. The first phase aimed at giving important messages by representing banquets, games, athletic contests etc. The second phase, between the 5th and 6th century BC was the time when the idea of migration of a soul after death into the kingdom of the dead, assumed importance. This led to the depictions of mythological scenes like the demons and the world beyond the tombs.
In architecture light and perishable materials were used for everything except the foundations while building temples. The temples almost always contained square bases and had to be built strictly according to certain prescribed rules. The roof was decorated with terracotta and was given protective coating.
The Etruscan language is not very comprehensible and has been derived from the Greek language. The first knowledge of their language started with the finding of the bilingual Phoenician-Etruscan Pyrgi tablets found at the Caere port in 1964. For more than four hundred years linguists have been trying to solve the bits and pieces of Etruscan text that are available. Now at least as far as the phonetics, meanings of some words and some grammar are concerned, the mystery surrounding the language has been solved.
Much significance is attached to the Etruscan rulers. The form of state was based on oligarchy with the government authorities being elected from the noblest of families for a pre-determined period of time. The Lucumone was the highest authority and he was the civil, military and religious chief. His symbols of authority include the fasces (a bundle of rods containing an axe in the middle), a golden crown, a scepter, a purple mantle and an ivory throne. The class system was divided between the aristocracy and the merchant class on the one hand and the servile class (the free men and slaves) on the other. The latter, as is expected, never could take part in the working of the government and were often marginalized.
Religion, religious texts, and myth
Religion was central to the Etruscan culture. The Etruscan books of divination-foretelling the future-were so popular that even the Romans depended a lot on them. The Etruscan religious literature was well appreciated in the 2nd and 3rd century AD. Vegoia was a nymph who framed rules to establish boundaries of land and Vegonic books were greatly helpful in resolving property disputes.
The Etruscan myths on the other hand were influenced by the Greeks, especially the fact that their gods had human attributes. Tagetes was a prophet-child considered very wise and who was very popular. He taught the Etruscans the art of foretelling the future by observing the entrails of sacrificed animals. This art was known as “Haruspicy.” The Haruspex was a very well respected priest who could foretell the future of any person.
The Etruscans gave the dead much importance as it was a way of asserting the prestige of a family. In the beginning the Etruscans believed in continuing an important activity by the deceased even after death. The tomb usually resembled a house and in some cases scenes from day to day life were painted on the walls. They were built like a hut with a round floor plan. Later, these were given up and the new tombs were built underground initially with just one room but later contained many rooms. If these tombs were built on hill slopes, they were called “Hypogeal” tombs and when they lay on flat pieces of land, they were known as “Tumuli.” From the mid 6th century BC to the 5th century BC, the tombs were called “cubes” and were built side by side in rows. These generally contained only two rooms and had altars on the top for worship.
Fall of the Etruscan civilization
The disunity of the Etruscans can be blamed for the downfall of this theocratic state. Many sources describe the Etruscans as the “twelve peoples of Etruria” meaning the twelve different states. The states were under no obligation to provide assistance to one another and due to this the Romans found it easy to attack and take over individual states. Rome also craftily signed individual treaties with the states rather than one treaty covering the whole. The decline of the Etruscans began at sea in 474 BC. The Greeks of Italy defeated them at Cuma capturing the Tyrrhenian Sea. On the land, the local population conquered the Etrurian Campania while the Po plains were annexed by the Celts who attacked from the northern side of the Alps. Slowly but relentlessly the individual states began losing control and even though they tried fighting against the Roman might in the 3rd century BC, without a strong national identity or co ordination, they lost badly and this led to their eventual downfall.
Region of Tuscany
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